Previously second-ranked Tennessee was bad, really bad. It lost twice at Florida, inept start, feeble finish.
Or, could be it was the exact opposite, a stunning upset by the Gators. They won, 67-54, with excellent scouting, better defense, greater effort and superior shooting.
The home team was far more aggressive at the start. It built a 17-4 lead. The visitors hit one of 10 attempts and endured seven minutes without scoring. Six early turnovers added complications. The Vols seemed short on urgency.
There may have been no connection but a difference of opinion might have been the match that lit a fuse. Colin Castleton, outstanding 6-11 Gator, thought he had possession of the ball. Zakai Zeigler, half his size, was absolutely certain it was his. There was a brief tug of war.
Tennessee awakened and went on a 9-0 run. Olivier Nkamhoua produced seven. The deficit dropped to one. Alas, a couple of defensive mistakes sent the Vols to halftime trailing 27-21. That was the least productive 20 minutes of the season.
“We did not get off to a good start,” Rick Barnes said in a fabulous understatement.
“We turned the ball over and Florida hit a couple of early threes. Give them credit because I thought most of them were contested. We just kept fighting uphill. Then I thought we really lost our poise. We let the fact that we weren’t making shots affect us. We had some good looks at it that we didn’t knock down.”
The second half was better for a little while. Ziggy nailed a pair of threes, Jonas Aidoo scored in the lane, Santiago Vescovi hit three free throws and the Vols were suddenly on top by six. For a minute or three, it actually looked like Barnes had solved the problem.
Not so. Tennessee returned to its recession roots. It ended up shooting 27.9 percent. It hit 20 percent on three-pointers.
The Gators did not take kindly to being shot out of the lead. They recoiled. Castleton took over the game (17-2 run). He blocked shots and gathered rebounds. He was mostly an interested spectator in the first half – four points. He scored 16 in the second.
“Castleton is a good player,” said Barnes. “He just stands back there. He is a one-man zone at the rim.”
The box score proves Tennessee shooting failures. Olivier Nkamhoua connected on four of 13. Zeigler was six of 19. Vescovi was 2-12. Josiah-Jordan James was 2-11.
Vescovi tried hard – eight rebounds, flawless on six free throws. Nkamhoua had 11 points and nine rebounds. JJJ contributed seven rebounds.
Florida had a good plan, a get-back defense. Tennessee had little competition for offensive rebounds but there were no transition points available.
Barnes said the Gators’ game plan was no different than what others play.
“They’re going to work hard at trying to take away the perimeter, force us into the midrange with certain players and see if they can make those shots. We’ve got to get better offensively. And what this game showed, as much as any game we’ve played, we’ve got to be connected on that end of the floor.
“The disappointing thing was we had some shots at it, it wasn’t that … I just feel like we didn’t execute at all the way we wanted to on the offensive end. And then defensively, had a couple of huge breakdowns at the exact wrong time. You can’t do that.”
Tennessee’s finish was as bad as the start. It hit four shots in the final 12 minutes. Florida defied what national numbers say about the Vols’ best-in-the-country three-point defense. The Gators shot 35% (7-of-20) from long range, highest hit rate this season.
When the home team tried to just run clock, Tennessee chased and fouled but nothing good came from that.
“Our guys are disappointed,” Barnes said. “But we’re better than this. Tonight we weren’t. I know these guys want to win; they want to do the right thing. When you feel like you’re getting great looks at the basket, and it’s not going in …
“I told our guys; we can’t stop shooting it.”
Reality: Tennessee, 18-4 overall and 7-2 in the SEC, is two games behind Alabama and tied with Auburn and Texas A&M for second in in the league.
No. 25 Auburn (17-5, 7-2 SEC) plays at UT Saturday. The start is set for 2. Here-and-there tickets are available. ESPN will televise the game.
Marvin West welcomes comments or questions from readers. His address is firstname.lastname@example.org.